On Tuesday, November 7, a dangerous cloud of pollutants surrounded the city of New Delhi. Air quality had been noticeably bad in the days leading up to Tuesday, but that’s become a normal occurrence in New Delhi. Air pollution was so thick on Tuesday the city had to halt all air travel and multiple car crashes were credited to poor visibility. New Delhi’s air quality has been constantly ranked one of the worst in the world, and the recent increase in pollutants caused the city to reach levels 10 times worse than Beijing, a city that’s air quality is infamous and constantly causing city wide shut downs.
New Delhi’s air quality levels reached as high as the 1,000 mark on the U.S. embassy air quality index, that’s 40 times the air quality level of 25 considered dangerous by the World Health Organization. The number 25 represents the concentration of fine particle matter in the air. At a 2.5 fine particle measure the air is considered dangerous because microscopic particles in the air are small enough to wedge into a persons lungs and other organs. According to the independent Berkeley Earth science research group, breathing the air in New Delhi is equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day. Its been estimated by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health that in 2015 around 2.5 million deaths occurred in India due to pollution.
Delhi’s chief minister described the city as a “gas chamber,” and as of Tuesday, city chiefs have closed public and private schools, shut down all civil construction projects, and banned incoming trucks not carrying essential supplies from entering the city. The direct implications of the air quality are shown in the increasing numbers of children being brought to hospitals around the city. Group medical director and senior pediatrician Anupam Sibal said that, “we’ve seen around a 30-35 percent increase of patients in the past couple of days,” and that “it wasn’t like this five years ago, children with respiratory problems are finding their issues are exacerbated.”
Beyond health effects are the economic and migrations implications caused by poor air quality, which affect the poorest people of New Delhi the most. Those struggling with poverty in the city are more likely to work outside for long hours and often live in places with poor ventilation, meaning they are physically trapped inside a cloud of life threatening pollution. Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy said that, “when you’re looking at developing countries, you really have to address this challenge if you want to move people out of poverty and into the middle class.” McCarthy also said, “what people don’t realize is the instability that results from poverty, the instability that results from migration as a result of climate change.” If a person in the city of New Delhi is to escape poverty, it’s imperative they first have clean air to breathe.
The cause of the poor air quality in India has been credited to the countries coal-fired power plants, overwhelming vehicles use, as well as the burning of agricultural waste and garbage. It is also true that geography and seasonal changes have a huge impact on the air quality, especially now in winter the pollutants of New Delhi become trapped within the city.
In 2016 India decided to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement to address greenhouse gas emissions. However they will not begin to make national changes until 2020, and have taken very few major initiatives to solve air quality problems. The government of India also launched the “Clean India Mission” in October of 2014, but pollution levels have remained dangerously high. The government has also been pushing for more manufacturing through their “Make in India” initiative. But manufacturing in India has often been contradictory to the goal of cleaner air and usually makes air quality worse. If the government of India wants to help its citizens, they must first make it safe to live and breathe in cities such as New Delhi. It is up to the central government along with the state to create strict policies and measures to combat poor air quality in order to save lives.
I did my undergraduate work at Pitzer College (Claremont, CA), where I earned a Bachelor's of Arts in International Political Economy.
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